Raven Rock Shelter to Ridge Road
Dirty Thirty Camp to Whispering Pine Camp
AT miles: 30.8
Total miles: 1101.4
Elevation change: 5289ft gain, 4849ft loss
Another day of hiking, another state down, another milestone achieved. While the heat and my tired legs didn’t make today an easy affair, the grind felt familiar in a distant and comforting way. The shift in the weather and dry start to the day shifted my focus to staying hydrated. Water sources became the anchors around which I structured the day, much like the dry portions of the PCT and CDT. I was out of practice and botched it a couple times, but the numerous streams and spigots of Pennsylvania bailed me out whenever I grew desperate. And I may have reached the halfway point, although I’m not sure about that one. What does that matter anyway?
One thing about hiking a 30 is that the sleep after is usually pretty good, and it was last night. My alarm pulled me back from deep, restorative slumber, and I wiped the drool from the corner of my mouth as I rolled onto my back and figured out where I was again. I heard rustling and conversation start up at the shelter to my left as the horizon and sky brightened with the changing colors of sunrise through the trees to my right. One by one, the others crunched past, back to the trail. Stealth stopped for a brief visit while I was getting down on my granola. Apparently he was shooting for a shelter 32 miles north, and it was going to be a hot day. 32 miles seemed like a long way to me, and hot sounded hot. I was packed and moving a little bit later, pooped and ready for a day of unknowns.
It was already approaching 70F before 9am, and my water supply was down to the last half a liter, which would need to hold me over until the next creek in 7.5 miles. That didn’t make me feel great, but what could I do? The trail at least was as smooth and flat as it could be, and I made great time for the second morning in a row. Until it wasn’t, and I couldn’t. A horrendously rocky descent was as tough on the morning legs as it was on the morning mind, but I made it through the boulder garden in one piece. On the other side, the cruising resumed.
As expected, the water spigots were off at Pen Mar State Park, but the Civil War informational signs made the stop worth it anyway. Not to mention, it was literally on the trail. A short distance after, a stone stump and a sign marked the Mason-Dixon line, the border between lots of things, including the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania. I paid my respects, snapped a selfie, and moved on into the rising heat, optimistic that the rumored rock issues of “Rocksylvania” were overblown.
The trail tread remaind about the same after crossing a road. Smoothish and rockyish. That thought was secondary, however, as sweat stung my eyes and dripped from my nose. It was definitely warm now, and the warm mass of air that had settled over the hill that I was slogging up, was moving just enough to carry the smell of manure from the distant pastures without providing any convective cooling. My water was nearly gone now, should have been gone, so when I heard a trickle, I perked up and swiveled my gaze. An unexpected spring was running cold and clear from the hillside. I dropped my pack and did what I needed to do. Before leaving, I splashed some water on my leggings and hood. The artificial sweat was simply the best.
Sure that I was now going to make it, the rest of the climb and the following descent came easily. I splashed some more water on myself at the next creek, which again, was fine indeed. Before I had the chance to do it again, the building clouds took care of it for me, opening up in a short, yet intense cloudburst that drenched me as I fumbled to grab my umbrella. It was gone as quickly as it came, leaving the heat while stirring up the rich aromas of the forest.
The bench and water spigot at Old Forge State Park were perfectly timed for a lunch break so I stopped in, wondering if I would catch Stealth there. If not here, then I either wouldn’t see him until dark, or not at all. It is really challenging to catch a hiker not at rest. No Stealth, just me, some cars, and a dude with a metal detector wandering around the wide lawn. I popped off my shoes and ate all the things.
The temperature had been perfect for sitting, but as soon as I started hiking again, my pack heavy with water, I wished that I had doused my clothes before leaving. Of course, the trail started a relentless climb almost immediately, and I was dripping sweat again in an instant. With each drop that fell to the ground, I tried to remember the cold rain water dripping in the same manner just a week before. I hadn’t dreamed of it being 82F, but this is what I asked for, more or less. The warmth was also comforting in a way that I didn’t quite understand. The oppressive air and stinging sweat wasn’t objectively pleasant, but there was a deep, nonspecific nostalgia that squeezed from my pores with my sweat. PCT? CDT? Both? I wasn’t sure, but it felt like the good ol’ days, some of them at least.
I plugged away in a hot haze, trying to hike hard, but not doing a very good job of it. Besides, the rocks were here. I could either get frustrated by them, or laugh at their absurdity. I chose the latter. Big ones, small ones, boulders, and towers. The white blazes kept me on track through some truly wicked piles. My new shoes did a commendable job of protecting my feet, but the thick cushioning meant that there were inevitable ankle yanks. I wasn’t sure how this compared with the rest of the state, but it was worthy of the reputation already.
Another unexpected stream provided water when I felt my remaining water stretch thin before making it to the next large creek. I stopped and drank, feeling roasted, thoroughly cooked. Slightly revived, and feeling good about the unmistakable slide into the cooler evening hours, I wandered through the well-equipped and beautiful Caledonia State Park. The restroom was air conditioned and campfires burned. One camper warned me that it was going to get down to 55F tonight. I told him that I wished it was 55F right now.
And I really did, because, as the trail seems to do with regularity, it climbed immediately and steeply from the place of comfort. More sweating ensued as I pushed hard, committed now to making it to at least the 30-mile mark where the next creek flowed.
The trail did eventually level, and I ran into a nice couple of day hikers who told me that Stealth was about three miles ahead. That made sense. They also gave me some chocolate covered almonds to deliver to him, as he had told them that he was running low on food. It was already 6pm, so I didn’t really think that I could make it the full nine miles to the shelter, but the delivery mission gave me purpose, and I sped off, determined to give it my best effort.
An evening breeze and soft pine needle tread were everything that I hoped for at the end of a long day. The dipping sun cast that familiar glow on the whispering pine and bushy mountain laurel. As I crossed a clearing under a run of powrlines, I took a short rest to listen to the frogs chirping and gaze at the open sky. Warmth contrasting with the cool breeze. Rest breaking the endless physical effort. Day transitioning to night. This was a moment of change and impermanence. Peaceful, yet purposeful. My favorite of the day, by far.
I made great time during my strongest sustained push of the day, but fell short of the shelter by two miles. With a full load of water and fading light, a large campsite of pine needles was too good to pass up. I collapsed in my tent, muscles and feet aching with the accumulated miles. I sat unbundled, eating Oreos and mashed potatoes, ravenous and tired. After dinner, there was no delaying sleep as I made notes on the day. I gave up trying, giving in to the fatigue. Another great night of sleep awaited.